A Brief History Of (Mostly) Bad Presidential Campaign Songs

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A Brief History Of (Mostly) Bad Presidential Campaign Songs

After Donald Trump’s Freedom Girls took over the Internet last week, my wheels started spinning with a mixture of intellectual curiosity and pure vertigo. Was this the worst campaign song ever made? A song so bad I couldn’t even muster The Room-like laughter?

I had to find out. So I did some digging through the annals of presidential campaign songs and characterized them. Some are innocuous; some are terrifying. I didn’t include songs by outside recording artists that were merely co-opted by campaigns, nor did I include “Come Together,” which actually started as a request from Timothy Leary to John Lennon to pen a campaign song for him. (It was for Governor of California, and Leary never ended up running anyways.)

Without further ado, we start from the beginning:

Song: “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too”
Candidate: William Henry Harrison
Hot take: Drake burned Meek less badly

There are so many things right about this song, starting with the title—still arguably the most famous campaign slogan ever. Even if Tippecanoe weren’t the name of a battle where WHH was a badass, it would still be a badass nickname. Further evidence of WHH’s badassery is given by his propensity for drinking cider and living in log cabins, still the standard for outdoorsmen in America.

Then there’s “Little Van,” the milquetoast, pathetic, impotent sitting president who’s going to be washed away by the tide of manliness Tippecanoe will ride into the White House. “Van is a used-up man” conveys so many different possible meanings of “loser” to the imagination (some dirtier than others).

Song: “I Like Ike”
Candidate: Dwight D. Eisenhower
Hot take: Blithe, but vaguely concerning

“I Like Ike” set the standard for modern campaign songs when it came out in 1952. On the surface, it’s perfectly innocent: a Roy Disney-animated cartoon straight out of the 1950s accompanies a crew of both men and women singing the war hero’s praises without really explaining why they like him. He looks grandfatherly, he exudes America, and the happy line of folks marching to Washington ranges from farmers to businessmen. Everybody likes Ike.

Everybody except racial minorities, that is. If this came out today, #IkeSoWhite would be trending everywhere. And wait…attached to the big drum…is that Dumbo’s mom? Does Ike condone animal exploitation? Or worse, is he bringing that elephant to the Capitol to stomp on the Senate? It sure looks way happier than it should be about a human cause.

Song: “Kennedy For Me”
Candidate: John F. Kennedy
Hot take: Free will is an illusion

Existentialism was all the rage in 1960, and Kennedy’s team capitalized on that with this ad that puts the onus on the condemned-to-be-free voters to make the right call. Over a bombastic march reminiscent of Sousa’s “Liberty Bell,” the chorus of trusted singers tells us “It’s up to you, it’s up to you, it’s strictly up to you.” Well now, that’s a lot of responsibility! I feel anguish and exhilaration all at once!

But is it really all up to me? Kennedy’s name is repeated so many times in the song that the very word starts to lose meaning. And once that’s done and my brain is turned to unconscious gelatin incapable of centrally processing any information, what choice do I have but to select the only option put before me? “You’ll cast your vote for Kennedy,” the singers tell me at my most vulnerable moment. Like an Inceptee, I nod my head and awaken from the ad believing this was my choice and that I’m pleasing Jean-Paul Sartre with my authenticity.

Song: “Nixon Now”
Candidate: Tricky Dick
Hot take: Master recording stolen from DNC HQ

Just listen to this song and try to tell me it wasn’t written by hippie liberals. We’ve got a group of men and women singing in unison, clearly influenced by the Laurel Canyon vibes of CSN, Flying Burrito Brothers, and Joni Mitchell, with world peace in their hearts and togetherness on their minds. There’s NO WAY the stiffs from the John Birch Society could’ve found the soul to write something this harmonious. So obviously, this music was originally intended for George McGovern’s campaign, and this is what the Watergate burglars were really after.

Well, they got it. And then the Nixon crew couldn’t think of anything more imaginative than “Nixon Now,” repeated over and over. Much like the Kennedy song, I’m not really left with much mental space to make a choice. Tricky Dick strikes again!

Song: “Why Not The Best?”
Candidate: Jimmy Carter
Hot take: Doesn’t live up to its name

This ditty is named after Carter’s 1976 book, written to increase his national exposure. For a man committed to “the best,” though, this sure is a mediocre song. Wallowing in the worst of saccharine soft-rock/country that pervaded the airwaves back then, the singer warbles along unconvincingly and doesn’t even bother to rhyme in the third verse.

Furthermore, if you want to say Jimmy Carter’s the best, why not just come out and say it? Brand leaves a lot open to interpretation here. Sure, Jimmy Carter’s talking about the government and his plans make a “lot of sense,” but do they make more sense than Gerald Ford’s? When he was running for president, the only area in which Carter clearly knew how to define “the best” was in peanut farming. Of course, given the nation’s robust peanut industry, that was crucial to his election. [Carter should’ve used the timeless song poem “Jimmy Carter Says Yes” instead.—Ed.]

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